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Rising from the Dust: My Unexpected Burning Man Business Inspiration

Rising from the Dust: My Unexpected Burning Man Business Inspiration Credit: Keith Aeschliman/Burning Man

The following piece was contributed as part of Business News Daily's byline series:

Despite Burning Man's reputation for drugs, sex and EDM, many substantive conversations are inspired by the ethos of the festival itself: communal efforts, gifting and social responsibility.

Five years ago, the Burning Man Festival became the point of origin for Open Road Alliance, a philanthropic fund that helps solve the unexpected challenges that nonprofits face every day.

The problem we were discussing was the lack of fast funding for nonprofit projects that encounter an unexpected roadblock; in this case it was the absence of $25,000 to send donated hospital equipment worth $500,000 to a hospital in East Africa. The machinery sat for months on a loading dock in the U.S. because no one would pay the incremental costs to make sure it got there. Truly, a problem that could be easily fixed.

Although it would take us a year or two to prove out this notion, it turns out that there is virtually no back-up planning included in most donor grants to non-profits. The attitude is, "Congratulations, you got your grant. Don't come back to us with a problem." This would be akin to watching a fellow Burner run out of water in the desert and refusing to come to their aid. It doesn't fly at Burning Man, and it shouldn't be acceptable in the philanthropic world either.

Even putting altruism aside, leaving non-profits and their beneficiaries to suffer is bad business. When contingency funds aren't available, donors essentially lose their original investments. Moreover, as the example of medical equipment demonstrates, solving these common problems often requires only incremental resources. In our portfolio, Open Road puts in only one-eighth of the original project budget on average. This leverage model gets us more bang for buck and has allowed us to rescue more than 70 projects to date, such as providing counseling on Indian Reservations, creating an open source sex-ed curriculum, and facilitating peace and mediation training for young African leaders.

"Be prepared" is the Burner mantra, and it is the message that Open Road Alliance brings to the philanthropic sector. Be prepared to act fast and responsibly to protect your investment in the people a non-profit project is designed to help. Don't let patients go undiagnosed in Kenya because equipment is sitting on a loading dock; make sure the organizations trekking through deserts to bring water to stranded communities aren't ironically derailed by unexpected flooding of the roads; and contribute to underserved communities by fully providing the resources they need to weather the unexpected storms we know they will inevitably face. Make sure the glass of water they have is full to the brim, because we should expect some unfortunate spills along the way.

My experiences at Burning Man made me realize that while you can't plan for what you don't know, you need to be able to adapt and evolve to get the most out of any venture — whether philanthropic or psychedelic in nature.

About the author: Laurie Michaels, PhD, is the founder of Open Road Alliance, where she works with her team to make charitable and recoverable grants to nonprofits in need of contingency funds. Dr. Michaels currently serves on the Board of Directors for PATH and Search for Common Ground.

Edited for length and clarity by Shannon Gausepohl. Have a great entrepreneurial story to tell? Contact Shannon at sgausepohl@purch.com to learn more about our contributed content program.

Shannon Gausepohl
Shannon Gausepohl

Shannon Gausepohl graduated from Rowan University in 2012 with a degree in journalism. She has worked at a newspaper and in the public relations field, and is currently a staff writer at Business News Daily. Shannon is a zealous bookworm, has her blue belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu, and loves her Blue Heeler mix, Tucker.